The Editor of the Daily Record assigned the headline to my last column of “If it ever was, Reaganomics is no longer the Answer.” The issue now is “What is the Answer.” Perhaps the question is more appropriately staged on a split screen in two parts (Choose One) in the political theater this Fall as (1) What is the answer according to Barack Obama? and (2) What is the answer according to John McCain?
So far, the economic plans of both candidates are at best unclear. In the case of Barack Obama, his policies are best described as “under construction.” Various design materials and builders are being considered. Well, everyone agrees that building a new regulatory and physical structure better begin soon. The selection of who will design and develop a President Obama’s economic policies is in the end probably more important than what particular idea has more political appeal during the remaining months before the general election in November. The later will dominate the picture, sound bites and even the debates until November. The former will supplant it very quickly if an Obama administration is elected and a new government is staffed.
What the economic plans and policies of a President John McCain would be are even less well defined perhaps for political reasons. So far John McCain’s economic plan to the extent that it can be deciphered is a series of positions, some of which are changes from his previous positions, which seem more designed to convey a change of attitude than a change of policies from the Bush administration. This lack of coherence may well be intentional driven in part for sound political reasons. The difficulty and heightened political risk McCain faces in asserting his independence particularly on economic issues from an extremely unpopular President, his policies and his party without offending his base should not be underestimated. He must maintain and turn out his base as well as persuade independent voters that he understands and empathizes with their economic anxieties and hardships in order to have any chance to prevail in the general election in November.
So far Senator McCain has tried to do this like most politicians by presenting himself in forums designed to allow him to focus on whatever theme will be most effective at that time and with that audience. He has presented himself as a reformer, outsider, tax cutter, environmentalist, “straight-talker”, etc. What he has not done in any meaningful way is to articulate any differences with any of the Bush Administration’s economic policies, i.e. Reaganomics, including the ones he once opposed himself. Specifically he has endorsed the continuation of all of President Bush’s tax cuts which he previously opposed and voted against when they were enacted because he said they were “unfair.”
In doing so, he has not even acknowledged any concern or even recognition about what should be the dominant domestic political issue this year – What is the proper balance between economic efficiency, i.e. growth and economic fairness and security particularly for the middle-class? John McCain’s refusal to even acknowledge the paramount importance of this issue which result in his tactically not discussing candidly and substantively the tradeoffs which are required to implement a policy of substantive growth and fair distribution which can result in a politically acceptable outcome. This Tactic does not serve him, his party and the country well. It is also inconsistent with his own history of risking his political future by breaking with his party and ignoring their focus-groups and polls in order to advance the causes which he believes in or as he puts it—“putting country first.”
The list is long – campaign finance reform, climate change, immigration, the Iraq War Surge, and opposition to torture. It is a list of political risk-taking which is documented and far lengthier than any other contemporary politician including Barack Obama can even begin to approach. Nevertheless as the 2008 election approaches, this universally admirable history becomes more and more remote, particularly since it is being deemphasized and in some cases disavowed on a daily basis. This history will therefore clearly not be sufficient to provide a rationale for voters, particularly independent swing voters who will decide this election to give Senator McCain a chance to implement an economic vision, both domestically and globally which they cannot see because he strategically obscures it from their view.
This is a high-risk strategy itself which is reinforced by the selection of a Vice- Presidential candidate whose relevant education, background and experience relating to these paramount domestic and global issues economic issues is at best unknown and at worst non-existent. This of course would not have been the case if Mitt Romney, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, Tim Pawlenty or even Tom Coburn had been chosen. Then a full-throated debate on the merits of alternative visions of domestic and global economies and markets, the extent and structure of the regulatory regimen which should superintend those markets and the wisdom of using fiscal monetary policy to redistribute income and wealth might have ensued between informed and experienced candidates.
This will clearly not happen now. In fact, this only makes it clearer that the McCain Strategy must now be even more overtly tilting toward obscuring or at least attempting to distract the voters from focusing on important global and domestic economic issues in favor of “traditional family values,” “energizing the base,” i.e. social issues, abortion, etc. It may work on the base voters on the evangelical right. It had better! They will need to come out for the McCain-Palin ticket with full force and fury because those themes alone will not resound with many independent voters in either party in 2008.
Even in the face of this GOP strategy, we may yet witness a real debate over global and economic issues albeit between the different circles of economic advisors and academics that currently surround Barack Obama. He has yet to choose between them and he probably won’t have to until the election is over and then only if he wins. The GOP strategy described earlier in this column will allow Obama to float whichever policy carries the most political appeal out for the rest of the campaign season.
My next column will set the stage in our political theater for the debate. It will be staged on a split screen. But the conference table and those around it in the West Wing on both screens at first glance will bear a remarkable resemblance to each other with President Obama at the head of both tables thanks to the GOP’s strategy of passing up the debate entirely.